29 September 2017

Sad but (un)true?

Who is perpetuating the idea that high numbers of Farmers are regularly killing themselves in this country? This troubles me cause it’s not true!

This past month saw a high-profile farmer in Hawkes Bay take his life. Paul Renton was a gentle giant, fabulous family man, great farmer, and a huge loss to society. I went to the same secondary school as Paul (or Butch to most) and remember his prowess as a sportsman, and just a bloody likeable guy. Tragic to lose him and my condolences to his family.

Following his funeral, I have heard numerous conversations about Farmers being a high risk suicidal death group, (which is a common perception) and wonder who is promoting this and why.

Yes, New Zealand has a terrible rate of suicide – dreadful considering we live in Aotearoa. But Farmers are no more of a problem group than many other professions.

And for the record this is not my opinion, but based on information from the people who handle all suicides in New Zealand – Coroners. Tough job right there.

One of the benefits of my job is being able to patch into any one of the 75 industries represented within the CQ community, which I did when I asked Coroner Carla na Nagara to shed some light on the subject of Farmer deaths. Here’s Carla’s view:

“It is to our collective shame that this country has such a high suicide rate. Certainly, it is a problem that needs addressing, but my sense as a coroner for an area that includes Manawatu, Wairarapa, Rangitikei, Whanganui, Taranaki, Hawkes Bay and the East Coast is that the incidence of farmer suicides is nowhere near as frequent as is commonly thought.

Recent research by Dr Annette Beautrais bears this out. After researching coroners’ records from 2007 – 2015, Dr Beautrais established that the mean number of farm suicides declined from 28 a year between 2007 and 2010, to 21 annually between 2013 and 2016. Significantly, these deaths were not all of farmers. It is important to remember that the farming industry is made up of a range of people doing a variety of work. Dr Beautrais found most suicides on farms were of young farm labourers, who accounted for twice as many suicide deaths as farm owners or managers.

Social isolation and lack of access to services is an issue, as it is nowadays for many who live in urban settings. Underlying mental illness or mental health problems also contribute, but again, this is a factor common to suicides beyond the rural and farming sector.

I consider Dr Beautrais’ work to be invaluable in providing an objective overview of the reality of the phenomenon of ‘farmer suicides’, and in the drawing the distinction between farmers who end their lives, and those who work in the rural/farming sector and end their lives. This is not to devalue the many lives lost to suicide in the rural/farming sector, but is an important distinction in the context of misinformation about farmer suicides.

Importantly, Dr Beautrais also made recommendations as to how the risk of suicide in the farming sector may be lowered. Access to firearms in rural settings greatly increases the risk that someone will take their life. As Dr Beautrais found, about 40% of farm suicides were by firearm, compared with about 8% of the general population. Dr Beautrais recommended that on-farm firearm safety be improved, which is simple and practical step that could be taken to lower risk in this sector of the population.”

Harv again:

What I also believe we are seeing in the rural sector, is cheap housing being rented to desperate people who are at risk, and maybe those deaths are being recorded as Farmer suicide? Don’t know. But they’re not Farmers.

It’s great that organisations like the Rural Support Trust have got momentum, and are providing support during personal difficulties. I sure could have used them at times when I was farming – great initiative. And lifting farmers’ emotional intelligence will make an enormous amount of difference to their quality of life and effectiveness.

And let’s get practical – If your mate/partner is depressed and/or suicidal, get the bloody guns off the property and give them to Police to look after.

So the scare mongering needs to stop and let’s get accurate about the fact farmers as a group or profession are not over represented in this terrible statistic.

Ian Harvey (Harv)

Founder

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